Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Crew:  a verb, derived from the noun "crew," conjugated as "I crew, you crew, he/she/it crews, we crew, you (pl.) crew, they crew."  Definition:  to support, feed, dress, entertain, wheedle, cajole, berate, cheer, and all-around serve an athlete who is digging deeper than anybody should ever dig.  [Not to be confused with "rowing," an action performed by a different kind of crew.  (Rowers never crew.  Rowers are a crew.)]

S__ and I flew to Reno to crew for frequent commenter D__, who competed October 5 and 6 in the Silver State 508 ultra-cycling race.  D__ was one of about 40 solo riders leaving the Atlantis Casino at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, following a circuitous route through Reno to Geiger Grade, at which point they began in earnest to race 508 miles out-and-back to Eureka, Nevada. D__ tells that story here.

Lest crewing sound like advanced cheering, let me disabuse you:  S__ and I were awake for 32:15 straight, in and out of the car approximately every 15 minutes during the light, driving directly behind D__ from 7:45 pm to 7:00 am at a distance of between 15' and 15 yds., mixing and handing off bottles, finding and serving food, performing minor bike maintenance, helping D__ to don and to shed clothes, and even raising our voices when needed to get D__ through the inevitable dark hours.

While crewing we interacted with other crews and cheered for riders across the front end of the field.  We saw one rider -- a world-class Slovenian ultracyclist -- only twice, once at the first stop and once as we neared the turn-around and he was on his trip home.  The 508 basically involved a parade of U.S. athletes racing for second place.

Picture from markobaloh.com

Those U.S. riders included Crow, Holstein, Rock Rabbit, Spotted Horse, Red-Necked Falcon, Great Basin Ichthyosaurus,  Irish Hare, and Wild Turkey; lest that sound like a late-night hallucination, The Race Director assigns "totems" to each athlete, an animal name the rider keeps for life after finishing the event.  (This idea will be familiar to those who remember "Born to Run," with its tales of Caballo Blanco, Venable, Lupo and Oso racing in Copper Canyon.)  Our rider was "Thundercat." 

We hung with that pack for some time, exchanging pleasantries with the other crews, cheering the other riders, and working our way slowly from West to East across Nevada on US Highway 50.  That stretch of road is nick-named "the loneliest highway in the world," which somewhat overstates the remoteness but is nonetheless appropriately evocative.  We crossed desert mountains, salt flats, and sage-brush deserts, but next to no water.

It was never hot, but with the altitude and desert air we baked, and our rider much more so.  We were charged with keeping him hydrated and satiated, no trivial task when everything seemed to upset his stomach.  We took to hiding caloric and salt powders in flavored drinks.  It kind of worked.

When the sun went down the desert sky was phenomenal.  After a marvelous sunset there was a near-full moon, brilliant stars that became all the more remarkable around 4:30 am when the moon set, and specters of mountains around us.

Much of the night we could not enjoy it, worried more about running the rider over than seeing any scenery.  Descending hills at night when providing direct-follow support is particularly fearsome.  You try to maintain the closeness while moving as fast as 45 mph.  And desert nights, in particular at altitude, get cold.  D__ rode for scores of miles with temperatures as low as 28 degrees.  Despite winter gear including double jackets -- for nearly 50 miles he wore my synthetic down parka -- nothing could make him warm.

After a short nap -- S__ enforced the allotted 15' to the second -- D__ began to ride stronger.  We crested the penultimate climb to the route's highest elevation at maybe 5 am and began the miles-long descent to the flatlands leading into Fallon.  In the light and on the flats, we moved back into the mix with a couple of the relay teams and with Wild Turkey; we learned in Fallon that Spotted Horse and Red-Necked Falcon were not far ahead.

Sand dunes on Highway 50, at approximately mile 100 and mile 408.
The final stage included a hellacious climb back through Virginia City to Geiger Summit above Reno.  On that climb D__ passed two riders directly in front of him, finishing the race on Monday afternoon, October 6, in sixth place.

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